Committee clears Trump FERC pick despite bipartisan concern

Source: Jeremy Dillon, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A trio of Trump administration nominees cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this morning despite complaints from Democrats about what they see as the pro-fossil-fuel bias of the president’s pick to join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Two of the nominees — Rita Baranwal to be an assistant secretary for the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and Raymond David Vela to be director of the National Park Service — moved by voice vote.

The third — Bernard McNamee to be a FERC commissioner — required a 13-10 roll call vote. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), by proxy, joined Republicans in approving him.

Democrats were particularly concerned about a video that surfaced last week in which McNamee, giving a speech at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event in February, criticized the deployment of renewable energy and emphasized the need to better promote the use of fossil fuels (E&E News PM, Nov. 20).

Those remarks, according to the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, proved that McNamee could not be an unbiased decisionmaker on FERC.

“I would have liked to take Mr. McNamee at his word when he assured me that he would be a fair and objective arbitrator and that he could decide these matters coming before him based on the laws and the facts, but after the video has surfaced … I find it hard to believe that he is going to be an impartial reviewer of these issues,” Cantwell said.

ENR Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) addressed the video in her opening remarks, calling the comments “unfortunate” but not enough to derail her support for McNamee.

The reasoning, she said, was the commitment McNamee gave during his confirmation hearing and in private meetings that he would remain fuel-neutral in his judgments.

“I’m going to take his commitment to maintain FERC’s autonomy and to take an independent role as commissioner at face value,” Murkowski said. “I will expect that he be fuel-neutral and not a champion for one resource over another.”

The three nominees now join a list of seven other Trump administration picks stemming from the ENR Committee who are seeking Senate confirmation before the end of the year.

Murkowski said during her opening remarks that she hoped to get each nominee confirmed before the chamber gavels out for the end of the 115th Congress sometime in December.

“It is my hope that these nominees can be confirmed before the end of the year so that the agencies have their leadership teams in place, so that the nominees don’t have to keep their lives on hold and so that we basically don’t have to start all over again next year,” Murkowski said.

While that timeline may align for the Baranwal and Vela nominees because of the bipartisan consensus forming around them, it may prove harder for McNamee, who has generated more controversy than previous FERC candidates.

On top of his video remarks, the Democratic opposition has largely come in response to McNamee’s work history and involvement in the failed DOE attempt to aid struggling coal and nuclear power plants.

As a political appointee in DOE’s Office of the General Counsel, McNamee helped craft a proposal to FERC that would have established some type of market tariff to power plants that could provide 90 days of fuel on-site.

FERC rejected that proposal unanimously earlier this year, prompting Democrats to call for McNamee’s recusal from future decisions related to the policy.

Vela, who currently serves as the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, would be the first Hispanic-American to lead the National Park Service.

Baranwal currently serves as the director of the Gateway Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear program at the Idaho National Laboratory.